Robert Anderson and Jeffrey Manns
85 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 57
Transactional law is one of the most economically significant areas of legal practice and accounts for a large percentage of the profits and staffing at most elite law firms. But in spite of its economic importance, there has been little empirical work on the overall legal drafting process and the evolution of transactional documents over time. We have sought to fill this gap by analyzing the evolution of public company merger agreements in a data set that encompasses 12,000 merger agreements over a twenty-year period. Using computer textual analysis, we are able to identify the precedent, an earlier merger agreement, which serves as the template for the drafting of each deal. This approach allows us to construct comprehensive “family trees” of merger agreements, which we use to show how agreements are created and how they change over time.
We use this innovative approach to explore whether transactional drafting is driven by a rational process that minimizes the cost of deal documentation and risk to clients, or by an ad hoc process that increases billable hours and risk. We show that a high level of “editorial churning,” ad hoc edits that appear to be cosmetic rather than substantive, takes place in legal drafting. Over half of the text of merger agreements is routinely rewritten during the drafting process even though the substantive provisions of merger agreements have similar features. Significant variation exists among merger agreements, even those involving the same firm, as there is no evidence of firm-specific templates or industry-specific templates in most cases. Lawyers appear to choose earlier merger agreements as templates based on familiarity with past deals rather than based on the economic needs of clients or cost mitigation. Our empirical findings provide strong evidence of significant (structural) inefficiency in the drafting process which raises costs and risk to clients.
This Article argues that this inefficiency calls for an industry-wide solution of creating standardized templates for merger agreements that could be used across firms. The use of standardized documentation would help to minimize the time consuming (and expensive) drafting process of lawyer- and firm-specific edits that do little, if anything, to protect clients or affect the substance of the transaction. Furthermore, deal-term standardization would have positive externalities, as judicial opinions crystalize the meaning of standardized text. In addition, this Article’s analysis suggests that, somewhat counterintuitively, the failure to standardize text actually may stifle true innovation in the transactional context. This Article argues that by establishing an industry-wide set of “base documents,” lawyers could create the technological platform on which to create truly innovative solutions for clients at lower cost. While lawyers may not have the self-interest to embrace a standardized set of documents on their own, this Article argues that repeat-player private equity firms or trade associations for the private equity industry may have the economic interest and leverage to push for greater standardization.